Swim #16, Swim to work, The Thames, from Eynsham Lock to Port Meadow, Oxford
How did this become a thing? Only since I have made it so. Involve other people, and within a few years, it is a tradition. From Port Meadow, Perch-side, from the Dodo tree (another recent naming that has potential to become a tradition) you can see the church tower of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. I see this tower from the other side from my tree-level room at work, a very privileged view it is. When I moved to the Institute of social And Cultural Anthropology just shy of twenty years ago, I was offered a room under the eves at 51 Banbury Road, in a tall Victorian villa that is one of seven that make up the Department now. We are planning a move, to bring everyone under the one flat roof next to the Pitt Rivers Museum, in three years time, or so. Meanwhile, the view from my room is one of several million dollar views I have in my mind’s eye – in this case, a Victorian church tower is framed by one window, a mature apple tree, by the other. And a standing desk placed such that both are well-framed, so when I look up from work, there are two perfect pictures, nay, a diptych, and Oxford diptych. And come winter, the four o’clock sky, when clear, can be livid red, and I can stop to watch it change, redden, darken, disappear into the night. Above tree-level in this house, in my room, I can be connected to nature as long as I remember to pause and look up. So, it is a short walk from Port Meadow to my work.
So, the 'swim to work' – how did it start? A few years ago, I registered for the Dart 10K, which is what it says on the pack, a 10 kilometer swim in the River Dart, which crosses part of Dartmoor, and ends at Dartmouth. Only the pronunciation of the English can strive to hide the obviousness of this - Dart River, Dart Moor, Dart Mouth – there is a common-sense-ness to the naming, associated with the practicalities of naming – the Dart-area is a strong brand, clearly, for all these things to be named after it. The Dart 10K, capitalising on the local brand perhaps, is a great swim, and a Great Swim, so popular it is now, you have to register quickly. 10K was a long way for me - I knew I could swim 5, 6K, so the early Summer was taken with swimming longer and longer distances. And this takes time, and when you have a family, time is the one thing that is always short. How to square the circle / take the bend out of the river? Swim to work. I live in Eynsham - it is a 1K walk to the River Thames, then 8K to Port Meadow. It isn’t an obvious thing to do, but a part of the back story is that well before I metthe Thames Group, emerging from the Thames in December from the River at Donnington Bridge, I used to swim from Eynsham Lock to the Trout pub, at Godstow. Six kilometers it turned out to be when I finally measured it. So, I swam to work - several times across that Summer before the Dart 10K - and have carried on doing this once a year. Last year, Helen joined me a little after King's Lock and we swam together for a good three kilometers. This year I arranged it for a Sunday, and was accompanied by Neil and Judy. Starting early, soon after sunrise, it was soon a lovely bright sunny day. Upstream of King’s Lock we met a running group from Oxford in the water – turned out there were two of them I knew, Richard and Chris. They were at their own halfway point, and they would get get out and run back after their cooling dip. King’s Lock - stopping for breakfast was a good idea – Neil, a strong swimmer, didn’t have the fuel on board for the longer haul, and the pains aux chocolat and tea (from my swim bag) at King's Lock, four kilometers in, did the job, and he was on form quickly after that. We met people, as always you do, this time from Ireland, both curious about what we were doing, and totally charming. Then the two kilometers from Godstow Lock to the Dodo tree – very pleasant, satisfying, happy to have swum. “Must do this again next year” Judy and Neil agreed as we headed to the car park at Walton Well.
Swim #17, Leipzig
This lido is on my list, as was Leipzig in general, happy to be here on holiday with in laws Janet and Tony, and Pauline. This is one of Germany's oldest lidos - Schreberbad opened in 1866, and was a basin fed by the River Elster, which we crossed on the way. This is a little beauty of a location, the idea of a bathing facility which capitalises the natural resources of the spreading industrialising Leipzig in the nineteenth century. This was the last day in September before it closed for the Summer season, by luck and not judgement, we were here, and it was open. Janet and Tony are well-travelled, love to be active, both used to warmer waters in Australia. Tony pulled me into the open water after a lapse of many years when we were in Victoria in 2009, when I entered the Port Lonsdale Rip-View Classic. This was an ocean swim, set in a coastal town across the narrow gap at the mouth of Port Phillip Baywhere Australia lost a Prime Minister, Harold Holt. It is worth saying that while Holt was a keen skin diver and spear fisher, he was not a strong surface swimmer. Holt could dive for considerable periods, holding his breath (he considered oxygen tanks to be ‘inauthentic’). During drier Parliamentary debates, he amused himself by seeing how long he could hold his breath. The drama of his death is well-written about – with his health of concern, his doctor advised him to swim less – this was the headline in the national newspaper The Australian. His reaction was the same I think as that of any well-swum person – he ignored it. One hot Sunday, the plan of leisure was to swim to work up an appetite, then have a barbecue lunch. The rest, is history, as was Harold Holt. Holt swam with one other, as the water was swelling, with a strong rip. Holt was taken out to water, without seeming to be in trouble. He never came back. “Should have listened” – to his doctor, to his friends. But he loved the water. Years later they opened the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris. The very Australian irony of commemorating a drowned Prime Minister with a swimming pool continues to amuse – the Day of the Rip View Classic is the day when it is now traditional to tell the story. As I found out on that day. The Rip View Classic – do it if you can, the proceeds of registration go to the local life-guards, who do a great and important job. They, at Port Lonsdale and across Australia, are the backbone of Australia as a swimming nation. I did a decent time, and I was pulled into swimming again. I still have the tee-shirt.
Today we're in Leipzig, a city I have longed to visit for many years - home of Bach, and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, we heard both. The Schreberbad was initiated by Dr Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, and opened five years after his death. He was a physician and lecturer at the University of Leipzig. In 1844, he became director of the Leipzig Sanitorium. He wrote predominantly about children's health and the social consequences of urbanization at the dawn of Leipzig's industrialisation. The idea of Volksgesundheit (people's health) was developed in his time, and the lido we are swimming in today was built with this in mind - health from physical activity in the outdoors. The pool is no longer fed by the Elster (or magpie), and has been renovated. The water is crystal clear with barely a touch or taste of chemicals - as it says in the mural at the entrance and in the changing rooms, here makes swimming fun! I could not argue with that, and nor could any of the others. The water was sharp on getting in – a warm Summer, pampered by warm water, made me feel the chill, although in reality not chill at all. People seemed to change at the side of the pool, and there was time to talk with the small number of local people in the water that Saturday morningThere was cake in one of the historical cafes, of course. Leipzig is great for cake; and cakes, plural - little Bach cakes, which are a recent tradition, in the spirit of the Mozart Balls my kids love and which you can find in Vienna and in all good airport shops in Germany and Austria. And music – I managed to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons – conducting Bruckner 8. And the Thomaskirche and Bach cantatas. Leipzig is a city to come back to.
Swim #18, Dresden, River Elbe
Swimming in the location that the Dresden Winter Swimmers swim at. The river is fierce, but just by the Augustus Bridge there is a back eddy which allows calm swimming for a stretch of 200 meters or so - a nice pool within a river. Bernardo Bellotto (nephew of Canaletto) painted the swimming area in 1748. I don't think the painting (in the art museum here) has the right title. The title is very descriptive and proper - Dresden From the Right Bank of the Elbe Above the Augustus Bridge. Which is correct, this is exactly where it is, a very Google Maps kind of title. I would offer something like 'Where to Swim in Central Dresden, a Calm Stretch on the Right Bank of the Augustus Bridge'. This would be a Google Maps kind of title if Google Maps had their swimming priorities right.I think of Death in Dresden, as I think towards one of the next trips, to Venice, and the poignancy of Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'. Dresden was is a mighty city, if still catching up up to be part of modern Germany. The River Elbe divides the country according to its historical social and political leaving, historians have said. East of the Elbe, aristocracy, Junckers, tradition, Protestantism; West – Roman Catholicism, progressivism. It isn’t really like that of course, but the Elbe is a power symbol. Dresden is a good place to think of life and death, if only because of the city itself – bombed to destruction during world war two, rebuilt, music deep in its soul. The paintings of Gerhardt Richter, born in Dresden, the skull and candle such a powerful image, the many abstractions, the water and sky, painted realistically so perfectly and on such a scale that it is truly painted to abstraction. Soft focus nostalgia /ostalgia black and white and grey painting of old photographs in old East Germany. He has his own rooms at the Augustiana Museum of Modern Art here, honoured as Germany’s great living painter, dealing with serious themes. When Richter dies, he with be a ghost in this museum, walking as he walked when he was a student and young man here.
That night, we went toa pre-season taster evening at the Dresden Semper Oper. Opera singers taking photos of each other at the very very end. And Wagner - who was here, coming and going, as he did, across the best bits of Europe - his opera 'Tannhauser' was premiered here in 1845. The Semper Oper – built, destroyed, rebuilt. Wagner and Tannhauser (saw it in Zurich last year), a seemingly meaningless/meaningful swander through life, the profain and sacred. The song contest (why? Why did Wagner write operas about medieval song contests? If he were alive now, would he have written one on the Eurovision Song Contest?) – Tannhauser, der Meistersinger. But some amazing knife-edge life or death / sacred or everyday music and words. This is why Wagner is on the death play-list of mine – the music wanders through life, the characters are human and make mistakes, even when they are gods. Life’s wanderings, with mundane patterns, wishes, hopes and dreams, and the occasional glimpse of ecstasy. And Richard Strauss – Dresden was the city most dear to him. The Dresden Semperoper was where Salome , Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier were premiered. His Four Last Songs on my playlist too. Dresden has a very opera house and it is a very special city. It can take the serious issues, indeed, begs them to be raised. Perhaps that is why I was reminded of death at almost every corner here. Not in a bad way. Last year I confided to Keiko that I saw ghosts in Kyoto when I was first there in 1994, but they made it comfortable. I sensed and saw people, living and dead, and Kyoto was calm, of itself, death not to be feared. Keiko reassured me that many people also see ghosts, and that this is a good thing. No ghosts in Dresden, but tangible memory, collective, individual, shaping the modern world. I seemed to picking out death – in the Royal Palace Museum, of all the cabinets of curiosity there are to be seen, I was drawn to the ornate box with the child reclining on a skull, with an hour glass running. Time is short, all will die, things are transient, however much importance we place on them. The next day, all such portentious thought is put aside as the rains clear, the sun burses out and we go cycling upstream out of the city, and, because sensitized to these things, found cake in a quiet cake (beautiful plum cake, for my part), but also a sweet gentle place to dip in an inlet to the River Elbe, where all four of us got in and were surprised by its relative calmness.
Swim #19, Sunrise and sunset in the Thames
Kristie and Judy have started this swim-thing before work, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Meet at 6.20, at Eynsham Lock on Tuesdays, Port Meadow by the Dodo Tree Thursdays, pleasant, polite, with an eye on the time, briskly in, briskly out, in time to get home, shower, put on the day and go into it. I am saving Port Meadow for another 65@65 later in the year, when the light gets short and the soul needs lit candles for cheer. This is not today, but I can make a new swim-thing from this particular swim-thing - Oxford in the morning, Hammersmith in the evening. I am in London today, and Rod has been saying that I should come on one of their Hammersmith swims. I regret the sin of delay, and finally am able to get to the last one before season's end. The day-length is turning toward shortness, and today, before the clocks turn to Winter's time, the day is breaking in spectacular form - reds and pinks and purple and blue change and merge to form the back-drop to the morning's swim. Changing by the dodo tree then watching the sun rise at eye-water level is one of the most gratifying things on earth. Thanks to Kristie, Judy, Jeremy and a brief sighting of Neil at the top end, and thanks to Rod and Mike at the bottom end. The Hammersmith swim was the Thames showing its muscularity. Around thirty people are here on the embankment, changing, many in wetsuits, some not. I choose not. The trick is to swim as the tide turns - timing is all. Rod and the others are expert at this. Yes - we can swim around the island - many cheers. Upstream with the tide. Wonderful Elder Press cafe in Hammersmith that stayed open for swimmers, well after closing time.
Swim #20, River Thames, Runnymede to Truss's Island
I have swum a number of times at Runnymede, with the Swim The Thames Group, and across the years when two of my children went to Royal Holloway, University of London. It is a stunningly historical place to swim, with a real nod to modernity. Part of the front end of this swim involves going under the biggest bridge of the non-tidal Thames, and certainly the widest of the entire Thames. Fourteen lanes wide. The last time I swam under it, I was tired, having swum in excess of 5 kilometers, I was ready for tea, cake, any form of calories, so I didn't too much addition, beyond, 'it's wide, really wide'. This time, fresh and happy and filled with calories, I looked up, and what a cathedral it is. Juliet sang as she swam - what you can do when doing breaststroke! - and the acoustics were, just resonant, even if not designed with singing in mind. In fact, it's two bridges, older and new, amazing architecture, I felt in awe. This is not the usual senstaion when swimming under a bridge, but certainly one to remember. The swim took us through Staines, and on to (again) very historic Truss's Island. Thanks to Juliet for screengrabs from her filming of swimming under the M25. I am sure this is unique footage.